We have all heard the statement “There are no atheists in foxholes”. It is an aphorism used to contend that in times of extreme anxiety or fear, all people will believe in, or hope for, a Divine Power. My Grandfather wrote the following essay several years after the end of WW2.
In Answer to Prayer
A thing that has puzzled me of late, and still puzzles me, is what exactly should be my reaction to answered prayers. I am an ordinary sort of guy. My attitude towards established religion is unsatisfying. I have no use for dogmas which I regard as the creation of priests down the ages. I am also reluctant to believe in anything that is not scientifically logical and credible. I suppose my position is the same as that of thousands of other people. But nevertheless I do pray—and my prayers are most marvelously and consistently granted. I think of the little girl who asked God for a hundred dolls at Christmas. She got only one, and her parents said, “There you see, God did not answer such a silly prayer.”
“O yes He did,” replied the little girl. “God said No.”
My own demands are often just as unreasonable—only God usually says “Yes” to me. The question I pose to myself is this. What should I do about it? If a friend acceded to any request of mine, I would be inclined to trust him to fulfill it, and afterwards I would in some manner express my gratitude. If then I make far greater demands on the Deity, and receive frequent benefits, should I not trust in Him to fulfill, and then to thank Him? To do so is only decent. But to do so is also wholly illogical from the scientific point of view, because, though some of my prayers are of terrific importance, others are as trivial and foolish as that of the child who prayed for fine weather on his birthday.
While I believe I have had no real religious experiences, the fact is that I have actually been accumulating very many of them—especially in the past few years which have been particularly traumatic and dangerous for me. The War dealt with me very unkindly. I lost my beautiful home (in Burma). I became a fugitive and an exile. I had no money; no clothes; sometimes no food. I became desperately ill. I had nowhere to go, and at one period was actually living in a coal cellar. The situation was indeed glum for one who has had, and who again has, a lovely house, garden, money, servants, books and beautiful things.
My home in Burma was twice looted by particularly destructive people who ended up doing the very minimum of damage. It was also occupied for three years by the Japanese enemy who burnt all the neighbouring buildings on their departure, but left my house unharmed. My prayers for the safety of my home throughout the three years of my exile were earnest and urgent. The favourable answer was so astonishing that the survival of my home in the overwhelming devastation of Burma, became a topic of general comment. And there were other desperate prayers of equal significance. My very dearest friend was critically ill. I had no means to reach him, though perhaps only I could save his life. Within twenty minutes of my urgent appeal, a plane was lifting me along at a hundred miles an hour, and my friend was saved.
Through those bad years I had been like a hermit crab which had lost its shell, and was particularly open to the kicks of ill-fortune. Often I had been stranded, often deadly tired. Those were the occasions for the trivial and silly appeals for Divine help which you would suppose are excusable in a child, but not in a grown man. I remember so well being helpless on the great bosom of the Irrawaddy with hundreds of miles to travel, and nothing but a miserable dugout in which to journey. “O God,” I cried one evening just as dusk fell, “Please send me a steamer.” Almost immediately I heard a clank of machinery, and around the bend appeared the brilliant lights of a ship: a ship where no ship had sailed for four years after the last mail boat was sunk in 1942. The appearance of that ship in 1945 was a miracle: just the most improbable thing that could possibly have been expected.
And so it has been over and over again. The Nam Pai River when I came to it was in full flood, and the bridge bombed out of existence. “O God, please let this river be crossable.” As usual I was alone, which made things harder. And yet the need to cross quickly was urgent. There in a grass hut was a yokel, almost an idiot, but he knew how to get across the Nam Pai.
What are we to believe after a long succession of similar experiences? Are we to dismiss them as mere coincidence? But if it is just coincidence, then there is no call to be grateful, and in that case there is no excuse for praying.
An ordinary guy like me, with ordinary attitudes towards these things finds himself in difficulty between superstition on one side and a belief in logic on the other.
But perhaps the solution is to be found just there— in logic. There are lots of things I do not know, such as what really happens inside a radio set. There are lots of things about which I am wrong. I think the proper attitude to assume then is that with our present limited powers and perceptions, we just don’t know anything at all about life, or about God, or about lots of other things.
If others like myself have prayed desperately for deliverance from incalculable and overwhelming perils, and the prayer has been answered beyond all expectations and reason, then the only attitude to assume is that it works. And if it works, then surely it is only right and decent to say, “Thank you, God.”